Book Review: Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks

m_august turakOra et labora: the twin pillars of monastic work are of equal importance. For a Trappist monk work is a form of prayer and prayer is a form of work. They practice mindfulness.

August Turak, an American salesman and serial entrepreneur, went to Mepkin Abbey, South-Carolina, when he needed time to think – and he kept coming back for years. He got fascinated by the Trappist way of life. The Mepkin Abbey monks are self-supporting by selling eggs from their chickens, and later by growing and selling mushrooms (four hours of work daily) and spending most of their days in prayer…getting up at 3 A.M. How could they survive in modern times? Could we adopt their business secrets, and alleviate the disadvantages of capitalism on the way?
Piety, not profit, is what the monks seek. Derived from the Latin word duty, piety is the duty we owe to parents, country, community, our fellow man and entails an activity that transcends our selfish motivations.

Service and Selflessness will lift your Organization. Click To Tweet

“Every child endlessly shouting: “Mine!” starts out selfish and moves toward selflessness as he matures. The trajectory of the human race – what we call civilization – is a similar movement from the selfishness of kings toward the selflessness of democracy, and history’s economic models share this path from win/lose toward win/win. Capitalism is not as selfish as the mercantilist system that preceded it, and mercantilism, in turn, was a big step forward from feudalism,” observes Turak. The monks showed him that making money doesn’t exclude selfless service… You can have both while you make a difference.

Who am I?

Turak argues that what we all really want is a transformation of being. We want to get to know ourselves better – we have a tendency to develop – we want to be authentic – and therefore the old scheme of storytelling that Joseph Campbell unraveled in “The Heroes Journey” appeals to us all over the world. The journey of the hero is “the calling” or a challenge – that helps the hero leave the comfort zone and start his journey to find himself underway, m_august2transforming into who he really is and returning home with the gift of wisdom, the presence of who he really is. That’s a storyline that goes back into ancient history. It’s what motivates us ultimately – though we may sometimes confuse our longing for transformation of being with “lower needs” on Maslow’s pyramid such as transformation of condition or circumstance. Then we buy stuff instead of experiencing ourselves by doing an activity or connecting with others.

This is what the abbey offers and what contemporary organizations must offer to be successful and engage their members: the experience of transformation. The opportunity to transcend your selfishness and serve selflessly…
Because what we seek, is to lose ourselves in “flow”… We feel most awkward when we are self-aware, unable to forget or lose ourselves in an activity. We are happiest and most productive when our sense of time disappears and we are oblivious of ourselves.

The journey of the hero is the calling or a challenge. Click To Tweet

Service and selflessness are the keywords that Turak learned from the monks.

The Transformational Organization

Many start-ups are transformational organizations by accident: that’s why people love to work there! You get lots of challenges, freedom to do it your way, freedom to fail and learn – and find out who you really are. But by the time start-ups get successful, they kill their entrepreneurial free spirit most of the time and throw out the baby with the bathwater.

There are also organizations that consciously design challenges and self-discovery – whether by training and development or by culture, structure or the way they innovate or initiate projects. Turak summarizes the ingredients:
1. They articulate a high, overarching mission worthy of being selflessly served. 2. Personal transformation is part of their mission. 3. They offer a path for transformation.

The monastic way of life is designed to transform ordinary people into authentic ones. Click To Tweet

Just like the monastic way of life is designed to take ordinary people and transform them into authentic individuals. A monk enters as a postulant and gradually becomes a monk – by living the ora-et-labora way. An alcoholic who joins the AA becomes a selfless individual who no longer needs alcohol. Someone who stopped drinking – but still yearns for it – is called a “dry drunk” by the AA. So it’s the state of mind that matters. That is a transformation of being: who you are.

Serve a purpose – and the community

We want a mission that matters to us – so that’s not top-down imposed on us. Turak observes: “People no longer work for money and find meaning in the church. We want meaningful work.” That’s why we are in constant dialogue with coworkers and customers – to discover why we do what we do.

m_monkWe selflessly work toward a greater goal, experiencing personal growth, but we also want to serve to experience meaning. Turak says: “Maximum performance emerges from the peer pressure of a community working toward a common mission.” Turak stopped managing individuals and started managing culture – and revenue took care of itself.
“We are most satisfied when we are sacrificing for something bigger than ourselves. Community is worth sacrificing for.”

That’s what Turak saw with the monks – and that’s what he aimed for in his business endeavors. He says it’s a bias that communities exist to serve individuals. It’s the other way around, too. Trying to be fair both to the individual and the community was the hardest thing to balance in his career.

Maximum performance emerges from a community working for a common goal. Click To Tweet

Turak, inspired by Mepkin Abbey, started a sales company from the principles of service and selflessness that became very successful though they had many tough adventures and he sometimes despaired… They did a great job selling other companies’ software and every time those companies called like this: “Your sales force is outselling our own. Can we have a copy of your sales pitch?”

They always shared their pitch, from their commitment to service and selflessness. But there was nothing magical about their pitch. “It wasn’t what our reps said, it was how they said it. It was the passion behind our selling that made all the difference.”

Sacrifice, faith, ethics, excellence

Sacrifice – discomfort – giving up your short-term or immediate gratification for a higher purpose – that’s what is bringing satisfaction in the long run. It’s making the purpose even more worthy because you’ve invested in it. Sacrifice helps you stay awake and aware: What do I want my life to be about?

Balance making a living with making your difference. Click To Tweet

In business, Turak also found that striving for excellence can create that experience. You sacrifice “easy and fast” for yet another round of making your service or product extraordinary. Excellence is also its own reward – what a great sacrifice to make! Every time Turak had to turn a sales force around – or when he was working with his own company – he focused on creating a culture of excellence. Combined with the ethics of serving the market, serving the community, they experienced the satisfaction of doing the right thing.

Sacrifice discomfort or immediate gratification for a higher purpose. Click To Tweet

Ethical standards, faith and trusting the process, with a form of detachment (not identifying with an outcome that must happen for you) – that’s a monk’s way of living. Turak applied it in business as much as he could. Golfers say: let the hole get in the way of the ball. Monks say: let go and let God.

Turak shares many stories to illustrate the lessons he learned. It’s an agreeable read if you take the time to ponder these principles. The short version is Ora et Labora: let’s poise work and Work. Balance making a living with making your difference – the Work why you are on earth.


Questions for reflection:
• How can you let go and let God?
• How can you balance your work and your Work?

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